Thursday, February 14, 2008

Curriculum reform

I've been saving this for a slow week. It's a slow week.

The Journalism Department is undergoing a review of its curriculum. It's a drawn out process, going on a year now, and has reached the point where faculty should submit opinions or proposals in writing. here are my thoughts, based on the skills I teach, which entirely relate to the use of computers in one way or another.

Firstly, I tried to determine what skills the students should or need to have. After some thought, I came up with this list:

- basic HTML competency
- awareness of Web 2.0 culture and the online environment
- desktop-publishing (DTP)
- general layout and design
- knowledge of electronic research and communication strategies
- computer-assisted and investigative reporting
- practical experience in an online newsroom
- critical thinking

Not all these can be or even need be mandatory in our three-year program. (In Quebec, high school goes to Grade 11, followed by two years of CEGEP and three years of university - same number of years of schooling as everywhere else, but both more and less flexible.)

At present, the undergrads in computer courses follow this progression of courses:

Year 1:
202 (optional): half a semester of electronic research and how the Net works and half a semester of DTP in Quark.

Year 2:
318 or 319 (students may take both, but at least one is required for the degree)
318: a semester of DTP in Quark
319: a semester of computer-assisted reporting with a taste of HTML at the end

Year 3:
428 (optional): half a semester of HTML and related tech and half a semester of running an online magazine (at least when I teach it...)
398 (optional): blogging and citizen journalism

In theory - and, I suspect, often in practice - we send out into the workforce students with only a semester of DTP. They either independently gain or lack other computer skills.

As a teacher, I have a few problems with the current scheme (I teach 202, 319, and 428). Students in 318 and 319 are a mix of those who have taken 202 and those who have not. As a result, we have to spend several classes covering material for new students that the 202 veterans have already seen. Part of the reason for this is that 202 used to be mandatory and naturally led into the 318/319 couplet. Now, the 300-level courses must compensate for students who may never have been exposed before to the subjects we cover.

The same goes for 319 and 428 - the 319 vets in 428 get a rehash of the HTML they saw at the end of 319. That's not as much of a problem, I suspect, since nearly all students who take both classes have a calendar year between the end of 319 and the start of 428 and tend to need the rehash because they haven't used the HTML in the interim. Still, I end up teaching how to read a URL in three courses because the lesson is valuable in each of them.

As well, there's some overlap in that JOUR 398 Citizen Journalism course with 428. 428 focuses more on the techie code and design with some forays into Web 2.0 and strategies. 398 focuses more on the theoretical aspects of Web approaches with a bit of HTML. They are not quite the same thing, so perhaps the overlap is both unavoidable and desirable.

Nevertheless, a realignment of the computer-based courses would help both the teachers and the students. Here's what I think we can do fairly easily:

Year 1:
202 (mandatory again): How the Internet works, electronic research, intro to Quark XPress

Year 2:
318: Go right into advanced Quark because all students would have taken basic DTP in 202. Cut out the current first two or three classes and replace with classes on layout theory and design such that it applies to Web sites as well as newspapers.
319: Computer-assisted reporting, investigative journalism

And add one or two new courses:

3XX: Web Skills for Journalists; take what is crammed into the first half of 428 now and expand it with currently omitted material to create a more comprehensive course over a single semester.

3YY: Citizen Journalism; this becomes a theory/history course, similiar to Broadcast Public Affairs or Gender and Journalism,
focused on the online world.

Should any of these 300-level courses be mandatory? I don't know. I'm not sure I fully understand why students currently must take either 318 or 319.

I suppose the Web Design course would become a third leg in a skills tripod built of 318, 319, and this one, 3XX. I'm not sure what that means with respect to mandatory courses. Maybe require students to take either 318 or 3XX and relegate 319 to optional status.

Year 3:
428: Online Magazine - this becomes a full semester of putting together an online magazine, like our advanced TV course. In essence, the online curriculum follows our broadcast model, with skills learned at the 300 level applied at the 400 level. A key difference, however, is that an online magazine can function just fine with a core of techies surrounded by content producers who don't need to know all the geekery. As a result, I think either 3XX or 3YY would be an acceptable prerequisite for this course - but that prerequisite should exist.

Other ways to reinforce Web skills in the department would be to allow students to create Web-based projects in some classes to replace reports otherwise handed in. Of course, this can't be a blanket proposal, but surely there are some classes and assignments where this could apply.

The students who choose the online courses would have that leg up in the job market and would also make more capable freelancers.

I haven't touched on graduate students because what we do with with the undergraduate courses then dictates more or less what happens to the graduate curriculum.

One last note: I mentioned critical thinking up top. I'm discouraged by the apparent lack of critical thinking I see in our students, which is symptomatic of the world in general. Maybe I'm just turning into a grumpy old man.... Regardless, I hope we find a way to make PHIL 210 a cross-listed mandatory course. From the undergrad calendar:
PHIL 210 Critical Thinking (3 credits)
This course is an introduction to argumentation and reasoning. It focuses on the kinds of arguments one is likely to encounter in academic work, in the media, and in philosophical, social, and political debate. The course aims to improve students' ability to advance arguments persuasively and their ability to respond critically to the arguments of others. Students will find the skills they gain in this course useful in virtually every area of study.

Bonus tokens of admiration:

They warn against kitchen or housework tools as Valentine's Day gifts for your spouse, but that doesn't apply to foodies. I bought the wife a food mill and a Zyliss pizza slicer for Valentine's Day. She loves them.


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